History, and a Nice Menu

I’ve long had an interest in the history of Shenandoah National Park, just a few hours west of us–and this past weekend we found a way to get up close and personal. On a last minute whim, we decided to take a quick overnight trip to Doyles River Cabin. The cabin was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1936–the same year that the Park was established–and is now managed as a rental property by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).

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As you probably know, the CCC was created during the Depression as a way to provide employment, housing, and food to young men that were facing grim job prospects. CCC “enrollees” were paid roughly $30/month to built roads and bridges and cabins and more. They built a lot of structures still standing in the park (many of the original structures were removed when settlers were forced out by the state of Virginia to create the park; more on that here).

The CCC did a lot of work across the country. In addition to roads and bridges and cabins, they also planted trees, built flood and erosion control projects, erected fire towers, stocked trout—basically did whatever they could to improve the infrastructure of our country.

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The CCC built this enclosure to the spring just below Doyles River Cabin

More than three million young men enrolled in the CCC, including some that later went on to great notoriety–like baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial and Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager (I’m imagining fireside chats about curveballs at the speed of sound).

Doyles River Cabin is a primitive (no power or water) one-room structure, but it is sturdy and accommodating and in a great location. It also has a lovely covered porch and a beautiful view. PATC has done a nice job maintaining it, and we were thrilled that it was available on short notice.

The hike to the cabin is just a half mile from Skyline Drive. And with such an easy hike, we figured we could carry some fancy food (shocking for us, I know). We brought a small cooler bag full of our dinner, along with some frozen water bottles to keep things cold (figuring we could drink/dump the water before heading home). We did most of the food prep ahead of time, including cracking and freezing some scrambled eggs (for Sunday breakfast) in a Nalgene bottle.

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We dropped our food and overnight gear at the cabin and then headed down trail another mile or so to Doyles River Falls (very pretty, despite the low-flow conditions). We shared the trail with a bunch of friendly folks, and saw quite a bit of bear scat. The black bear population is growing in the park, although we weren’t lucky enough to see one on this trip.

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After our hike, we spent time lounging around the cabin and soaking in the view.

For dinner, we fried up some trout (just as the CCC might have done), made our favorite frybake French potato dish, Potato Gratin Savoyard (probably not what the CCC would have done), and enjoyed steamed mussels (definitely not what the CCC would have done).

As we cooked dinner, we admired the stonework and hand hewn logs that make up the cabin, as well as the beautiful view of the night sky. It’s pretty amazing to think that Doyles River Cabin has been providing cozy nights under the moonlight for 80+ years. The cabin looks fantastic for its age–which apparently is only a compliment if you are talking about a cabin (ask me how I know).

There’s something rewarding about finding an adventure close to home—and even more so when it includes a bit of history and a nice menu. And we have the mussels to prove it.

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Same Dynamic

I’ve wanted to visit the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island ever since I read a travel article about it back in the 1990s. The island was first charted in 1608, and its history is completely outsized for a place that is less than 1/2 of a square mile in land mass. The human history stretches from Native Americans through the Revolutionary War and on through to the watermen of the 1800s and 1900s—and many of those same families continue to ply the bay for crabs and oysters to this day.

There has been an explosion of interest in Tangier in the past few years, primarily because it is eroding into the bay at an alarming pace. About two thirds of the island has disappeared since the 1850s, and the rate of loss is now accelerating. Whether the cause is climate change or a natural cycle is a subject of some debate among the islanders–but one thing that most residents can agree about is their desire to preserve the island.

Our weekend overnight visit wasn’t motivated at all by erosion; quite to the contrary, we were drawn by the sameness of the place. Tangier is disconnected and isolated from the mainland by ten miles of open water, so “conventional” change has been slow to come. And that is definitely a strong part of its draw.

We headed to Tangier on the ferry out of Crisfield, Maryland, on a scorching hot Saturday with our good friends Lou and Kay. We shared our boat with a big gathering of day-trippers from nearby Dorchester County (maybe 100+ people in their group, very friendly, from two local churches). 

Once at the dock in Tangier, we watched as folks streamed into the few restaurants and the nearby ice cream shop, overwhelming the town and swelling its population by 20% (from 400 to 500+) for a few very busy hours.

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Main street during a peak in visitors

While our fellow travelers enjoyed lunch and bought a souvenir or two, we headed to the south end of the island to spend some time on the beach. And when we got back to town, most had already left for Crisfield on the 4pm boat.

The islanders are friendly and patient, and they clearly benefit from tourism. But I caught myself thinking that it could get old to be looked on as a curiosity, especially when big groups of tourists overrun the place. So we tried to be mindful of that as we made our way through town. After all, we were tourists, too.

Anyway, once the big group was gone, it felt like we got a truer glimpse of Tangier. The restaurants weren’t packed, the streets were quiet, and the locals were still friendly and patient—but with a bit more time to share, and at a pace that one resident described as “island time.”

As for the town itself, there are a few places to eat, a handful of shops, bike and golf cart rentals, and a few B&Bs–including the Bay View Inn and its wonderful hosts, Maureen, Jim and David. The Bay View Inn’s owners treated us like family from the start, even though tourists on Tangier are often called “come-heres” in local parlance. Lou and I took their cue about family and began teasing each other like teenage brothers, which culminated in a breakfast haiku contest that probably isn’t fit for a family blog. But what’s a weekend without a little combat haiku?

As one would expect, things are simple on the island, and there aren’t a lot of amenities. There’s almost no cell reception, and you need to be willing to get a little wet and a little hot and maybe fight a few bugs to really explore the place. Tangier is a beautiful island in the middle of a bay–but it’s not Nantucket, and by all indications it doesn’t aspire to be.

In addition to the excellent sea kayaking (kayaks are available at no charge from the Bay View Inn), a highlight of our visit was a tour of a crab shanty in the main harbor. Ookire Eskridge, a life-long waterman and the town’s mayor, was our tour guide. He was very friendly and very patient (and funny) as he explained what has been his livelihood for decades. The amount of time and effort that it takes to harvest a soft-shell crab is astounding, and I’ll never eat another one again without thinking of Ookire and his shanty.

It’s impossible to understand any place, especially one as complex as Tangier, in a simple overnight trip–but we really enjoyed the opportunity to try. We found the islanders to be kind, independent, resourceful, and proud, and there is a very strong sense of community. A few quick examples: there is a list on the church bulletin board of residents that are “shut-ins” (to encourage regular visits), there was amazing teamwork moving supplies at the dock, and looking for Ookire to arrange our tour involved (unsolicited) help from at least five people.

This is also a community that cares a lot about their island. Many (most? all?) are eager for a sea wall that can help to keep the bay at bay (one resident jokingly asked me to bring two buckets of dirt the next time that I visited). A sea wall is a complicated question these days, but there’s no doubt that Tangier is a treasure.

Sunday afternoon–and our ride home–came too quickly, despite the heat and a little bit of sunburn. These trivial things were just a hint of the challenges and the hard work that it takes to make a living on Tangier–and that doesn’t even take into account the many moods of the open water on the bay. 

When people can somehow stay the same in an ever-changing world, it sets them apart, and not always in a good way (I think of my cousin’s old-style fanny pack, or Aunt Angela’s tube top). But in Tangier’s case, it’s a good thing, and Tangier is an extremely unique place.

My brother is a great writer and he tells me that there are not “degrees of uniqueness,” that something is either unique or it isn’t. But he’s never been to Tangier.

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Cooking Old School In The New Year

Souzz and I often spend New Year’s Eve in the backcountry or in a cabin, and we traditionally make risotto (along with some other fancy dish). The standard bearer of New Year’s absurdity was probably the year that we made risotto with lobster in a five burner kitchen while camping in the snow. We didn’t quite reach that level of absurdity this year, but we at least thought about it.

 

Anyway, with cold rain in the 2019 forecast, we decided to head to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Dawson Cabin in Pennsylvania, about two hours drive from our home in Virginia. Dawson is one of the lesser visited cabins in the PATC system, maybe because the hike to the cabin is straight uphill. But the hike is short, and Dawson is a hidden gem that is worth the visit. The cabin is well appointed and very well maintained, and it has southern exposure and a beautiful view.

For our planned risotto and filet mignon feast, we hauled in a lot of cookware, as well as a five pound canister of propane and a two-burner camp stove. Utility wagons are a great tool for getting bulky gear into walk-in PATC cabins—but dragging them uphill through the mud and over tree roots in the rain might be an acquired taste.

When we reached the cabin, we discovered that there was a problem with the regulator on the camp stove, so the stove and propane were basically flammable barbells. The issue was clearly beyond what I could field-repair, and fiddling with high-pressure gas connections is exciting in any circumstance–but especially so in a remote wood-framed structure. I’m also kind of fond of my eyebrows.

As a consolation, at least we had some good appetizers.

With appetizers gone and still five hours to New Year’s, we had a new twist: how to make risotto without a modern camp stove. But there was a perfectly serviceable wood stove sitting right at our feet, so how hard could this be?

Tending a wood stove is always important in a PATC cabin in winter, although the goal is usually just heating the place. But now we had to figure out a way to keep the heat somewhat constant.

Ok, so I get that wood stoves have been around for generations, and my friends in bush Alaska are probably rolling their eyes by now (well, at least Ruby is…but in my defense, I don’t remember seeing a lot of risotto on “Life Below Zero“).

It took a little fiddling to maintain the level of heat on the cooktop, and there were times when we had to cool things off by lifting the pan onto a hastily made wire trivet (using a piece from a broken dartboard that we found in the cabin).

But we figured it out, and the risotto was quite good. And the keys to good risotto are the same whether on a modern range or on a wood stove: using homemade stock (way less salty), heating the stock quite a bit before adding, and cooking the risotto at high heat (ideally enough heat to finish the job in less than 20 minutes). With too little heat, things take a long time and the risotto gets sticky.

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We paired the risotto with filet mignon, which we grilled over wood fire coals. And note Souzz’s thumb print in the steak. I guess that’s how real chefs figure out if it’s done.

Lastly, our stove challenge gave us the chance to puzzle over why we go to primitive cabins and then haul in hundreds of pounds of fancy gear. That seems about as logical as getting the turbo option when you buy a Ford Fiesta. So maybe simplifying things should be our New Year’s Resolution? Well, that and preserving my eyebrows.

Swiss Time

I’ve wanted to hike hut-to-hut in Switzerland for years, but planning such a trip always seemed like a daunting task. For starters, there are more than 150 huts in the Swiss Alpine Club system, which seemed totally overwhelming. And the language barrier for someone that doesn’t speak Swiss German is big, as almost all of the websites and information are in Swiss German (go figure).

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Looking down at the Terrehutte and the clouds

Enter our good friends Reto and Annika, who live near Zurich and know a thing or two about these huts. They helped us plan a three day trip of about 30 kilometers on the Greina Plateau in the south central part of Switzerland–and by “helped us plan,” I mean that they planned it. Best of all, Reto came along (perhaps he thought we could use a chaperone?).

 

Getting from Zurich to the trailhead near Vrin was ambitious enough, requiring four hours, three train rides, three cups of coffee, two bus rides, and a kilometer of walking up a village road.

 

From the trailhead, it was about 9 kilometers and 800 vertical meters to get to the Terrihutte, which is a beautiful stone structure on a point at the head of a valley.

 

The Terrihutte was built in 1925, although it has been renovated and expanded multiple times since. It has space for 110 in shared bunk rooms, as well as a full kitchen and a bar with cold beer and wine (as with most huts, restocking is done by helicopter). It also has electric power generated from the creek below, quite the luxury.

Food at the hut was simple but hearty. Potatoes, meats, soup, breads, butter, and salads are typical, all served family style in a dining room that offers ridiculous views.

 

The huts are also highly social places, even if you don’t speak the language. We were generally sitting across the table from someone who hiked the same hard kilometers that we did, which means we had a few things in common–including sore feet and tired legs. And, despite our ugly American language skills, many of our fellow hikers were gracious enough to reach out in English (which was a good thing, as hearing Reto and his family laugh as I tried to say the word for “three” in Swiss German wasn’t very encouraging).

 

The next day we headed up and over our high point at Greina Pass (2703 meters) to the Medelserhutte. It was a 15 kilometer hike, including some scrambling and a descent of a long snowfield. There were also some really fun glissades (the easy part) before a short ascent to the hut.

 

The Medelserhutte is in a saddle with a commanding view to the west. It is a smaller hut than the Terrehutte, with 55 bunks, but still plenty roomy. Despite an early-ish start to our hike, we didn’t get there until nearly 6pm–but that was still enough time to catch sun on the back patio and watch Capricorns (a type of bighorn sheep) run the hillside.

 

Looking back, Reto and Annika made it easy for us to do something that would have been very hard for us to do on our own (impossible?!), and for that we are very grateful. Visiting Switzerland with their help was priceless, spending time with them and their children before and after our hike was a treasure, and we are still glowing about our trip.

As for our time in the huts, I caught myself wondering how the Swiss built these places. But mostly I wondered why my legs were so sore. And then I wondered what another beer would taste like.

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Time Travel

My buddy Rick and I just got back to Virginia after spending a week touring the Yukon by dog team. Friends of ours, Wayne and Scarlett Hall, run a dogsledding business out of Eagle, Alaska, called Bush Alaska Expeditions, and they hooked us up with a great tour. Even getting to Eagle is a bit of an adventure, requiring a ride on the mail plane out of Fairbanks. Once in Eagle, we met up with another friend and guide, expert musher Nate Becker, before heading for the hills.

The country around Eagle has a long and interesting history, including a number of different Athabaskan tribes, fur trading dating back to the 1700s, and the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush that started near Dawson City (150 miles upriver). During the gold rush, people came north with big dreams, and some made (and lost) fortunes. Place names like Last Chance Creek, Bonanza Creek, and Hard Luck Creek tell a part of the story.

Our trip felt like a moving tribute to the hardy souls that lived and thrived up there a hundred or more years ago, almost like time travel. Back in the day, the frozen Yukon River was traveled by legends like Percy DeWolfe, who carried the mail back and forth between Dawson and Eagle from 1910 to 1949….when it costs 3 cents to send a first class letter. Another notable resident was Harry Karstens, nicknamed the Seventymile Kid, who came from Chicago to prospect for gold before becoming a “packer” hauling mining supplies for other prospectors. Karstens went on to lead the first ascent of Mount McKinley (now Denali) in 1912 and later became the superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park.

During the course of our week, the rich history of the Yukon revealed some of itself to us through the cabins along the river. A few of the cabins were historic, a few were relatively new, and a few were somewhere in between–but all were remarkable in their own way. The one constant is that they were generally spaced about a day’s mushing apart–which was good forethought by the folks that built these places.  Cabins along the Tatonduk River, the Nation River, and the Seventymile River were a welcome sight after a long day on the trail, just as they would have been in the early 1900s.

I’m sometimes asked why I am so captivated by Alaska, and I answer that it’s because it’s the way the world used to be. During the course of the week, it was easy to wonder what it must have been like back in the day–and each time that I stopped to warm my fingers, I was reminded that I probably wouldn’t have had what it took. I have no idea how people thrived in this land before fancy down jackets, goretex gloves, and bunny boots. That said, it was also inspiring to spend time with some of the people that are thriving there now, like Wayne, Scarlett, Nate, and Nate’s wife Ruby.

Our wonderful hosts obviously made this trip possible–but it’s also important to call out the true stars of the the week: those incredible canine athletes. One thing that I’m pretty sure hasn’t changed in the last 100 years is that Alaskan huskies are phenomenally fit, loyal, and eager to run. They are also incredibly reliable, as a dog team never breaks down on the trail (unlike a snowmachine…or snowmobile, in case you don’t speak Alaskan). Each morning, those huskies were ready to take us anywhere that we had the skills to go, and they also seemed completely impervious to the cold. As I adjusted layers a thousand times on the back of the sled, I remembered that my dog team was wearing exactly the same thing that it had on last summer.

After an amazing week, Rick and I came back from the Yukon with a new appreciation for the way the world used to be, and the way that it still is…at least up there.

Leaving The Rock

We closed out our trip to Newfoundland with a hike in Little Cove, just south of the village of Twillingate. Our hike took us to Jones Cove and then up and over the ridge to Lower Little Harbour.

The Twillingate hiking website listed this particular hike as easy, but we found it to be a bit more—four or so miles with a lot of up and down. Perhaps this was due to weather in the low 50s (Fahrenheit) and high winds (25-30 mph gusts), or maybe we are just flatlander tourists. In any case, the hiking was interesting, with sections of heavy forest, sections of bare rock, a summit ridge, and even a short stretch of rocky beach.

Along the way, we passed a natural arch and the remains of a settlement from the 1930s, including what was left of a restaurant called Kelley’s Sunset Chat. Our hike was a nice mix of nature, history, and exercise–including some scrambling and some up-hill climbs.

Back in Twillingate at Oceanview Retreat, we closed out our stay with another interesting Newfoundland dish, seafood chowder. It’s pretty clear why I haven’t lost weight on this trip.

Some other local dishes this week included Newfoundland fish cakes, pickled herring, and fried dulse. Menu staples here are highly seasonal, revolve around the sea as well as roots and berries, and have a simple charm about them.

We are back in Virginia now, but we have some great memories of “The Rock,” as Newfoundland is often called. We didn’t know much about any of these places before planning this trip, and now we’ll never forget them. The culture is interesting, the people are amazingly friendly…and there is so much more to see.

On our way to the airport in Gander, Souzz uttered the telltale phrase that marks the end of a great vacation: “I wish we had one more day.”

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Twilling-great

We’ve been having fun in and around Twillingate, Newfoundland, for the past few days. That includes a visit to Auk Island Winery, some hiking, and a sampling of some of the local seafood. We’re up here in shoulder season, so a lot of businesses aren’t open…but we pretty much have the place to ourselves (along with 2,500 delightfully friendly residents).

Of course, the hiking trails around Twillingate don’t ever really close down (depending on your tolerance for cold weather, I guess), and we had an awesome day for a hike. After a visit to Crow Head and Long Point Lighthouse, we enjoyed hikes to French Beach and French Head. The views were stunning, the sky was crystal blue, and we were the only folks around.

As nice as the hiking was, the highlight of the day was our visit to Auk Island Winery, where we chatted with our friendly host, Nicole, for nearly an hour. She shared a lot of insight into their berry wines, and also shared her love for Twillingate and the surrounding country. We covered a lot of ground, including stories of Nicole’s travels to the Dominican Republic and Cuba, and a brief conversation about her experience during 9-11.